In 2006, I read Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Against the Day. Towards the end, private investigator Lew Basnight runs into bad hombre Deuce Kindred shortly after Basnight has completed a tryst with Kindred’s wife. The scene takes place in 1930s Hollywood, and small talk reveals that the two men work in the same business:
“Mind if I ask,” Lew nodding in what he hoped was not an offensive way at the firearm under Deuce’s jacket, which he had not removed, “what line of work you’re in, Mr. Kindred?”
“Security, same ’s yourself.” Lew kept his eyebrows amiably elevated till Deuce added, “Up at Consequential Pictures.”
“Interesting work, I’ll bet.”
The name of Kindred’s employer made me laugh, because my mind’s eye conjured an arc of glowing white script at at the beginning of a black-and-white film declaring “A CONSEQUENTIAL PICTURE!” But that was the only mention of the fictional studio in the book, and (to my knowledge) it has not appeared in any other Pynchon prose.
Later that year I opened a Gmail account, and when asked to create a new email address, I typed: “consequential.pictures” At the time, an odd user name helped deflect spam (which doesn’t work anymore), and I liked the thought scattering seeds of Pynchon across cyberspace. I also liked the sound of it…and thankfully so, because eleven years of typing a thirty-two character email address burned the words in my mind and my fingers.
Beyond that, “Consequential Pictures” had no deeper meaning. I thought it might be a good business name, perhaps attached to a one-man art/design enterprise. But I could not ignore this definition:
consequential, adj. and n.
- Of persons: a. Having social consequence. b. Having or displaying a high opinion of one’s own importance; self-important.
―Oxford English Dictionary
I find the Pynchon joke funny because of the mix of arrogance and optimism implied by declaring a picture “consequential.” If an artist declares their work consequential without sarcasm, they tell the world that the work has an exact meaning, and it’s a very serious meaning, and the artist is absolutely right about the rightness of that meaning. Self-importance of that kind (sometimes) works for geniuses, but for the rest of us, it just leads to inconsequential work.
In hindsight, one of my inconsequential pictures: The Theologian and the Ornithologist, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches, 2005. Private collection.
I know this is true because my narrative paintings frequently fell into this trap. In Consequential Pictures, Part 1, I describe paintings that feel “closed,” with The Theologian and the Ornithologist being an example. A theologian and an ornithologist sit at a table in a bar, debating over books and a bird, while in the background the bartender serves drinks to Albert Ayler, John Berryman and Lou Reed. A TV over the bar shows footage from the Iraq invasion. Crystal clear, eh? When I made the work, I decided on its meaning before I put brush to canvas, and assumed that by painting all the pieces in the right place, a viewer would understand this meaning, which had social consequence. In reality, even if a viewer deduces my original meaning, that meaning is really just a message, a very simple declaration by artist to viewer, obscured by opaque symbols. The work is closed, with no opening for the viewer to enter, and no real gaps to bridge with their imagination. In retrospect, I could have saved myself a lot of paint and effort by just publishing a manifesto.
On the other hand, for an artist to wink and smirk as they present “A CONSEQUENTIAL PICTURE” seems mean and depressing to me. It implies that the artist knows their work is not important, and the viewer knows it’s not important, but the artist still insists that the viewer waste their attention and join them to laugh about how inconsequential the whole enterprise is. In late 2017, I do not think this is a good way to go about making pictures.
Re-creation Myth, vector artwork, 2016.
I would not make and share this work (or this web site) if I did not want an interested audience to see it and respond to it. Last summer, I taught Painting at the University of Georgia Studies Abroad Program in Cortona, and exhibited some of my vector artwork for the first time in its end-of-semester Mostra exhibition. One of the pieces I included was a large print of Re-creation Myth, a composition based on a painting I made ten years ago. As we installed the show, a faculty colleague saw the piece, and said to me, with direct sincerity: “I love that.” He added no questions about my formal parameters, my technical process, my aesthetic program, or my intended meaning. I assumed this was because he didn’t need to—the picture left room for him to draw his own conclusions. I thanked him, because he really did make my day. Upon reflection, I think his intense admiration for the picture also enhanced my understanding of “consequential.”
I make pictures by defining a small set of guidelines. I then act within those guidelines, keeping an eye out for useful changes, until I think the results are worth sharing. This is a serious and sincere effort, because I am asking you as a viewer to lend me your attention and engage your imagination in order to complete the picture’s meaning. That is the most important consequence a Consequential Picture can effect. You may love what you see, and you may not, but if looking at the picture compels you to choose, I can accept the consequences.